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The Australian Democrats are no template for the Australian Greens

By Patrick Baume - posted Monday, 18 July 2011

With the ascension of the Greens to nine seats in the Senate and holding the balance of power alone in that house, many pundits have already been keen to write them off as a potential flash in the pan like the Australian Democrats. A Party that is filling the vacuum for people unhappy, for whatever reason, with the two major players that will eventually disappear after it is faced with the cold hard pragmatics of having a real say on policy.

The Democrats did reach the same level of power in the Senate as the Greens have now in 1990 with nine seats, but the similarities end there.

The Democrats began as a party of the centre, essentially small l-liberals, socially very moderate, economically cautious but no fans of either big business or the unions. Their entire stated aim was to "keep the bastards honest." They were the essence of a minor party, always expecting to be the moderator, the umpire and never the main protagonist.


In reality, as the Labor Party went further and further right economically, most of the Democrats membership ended up to the left of both major parties, on both social and economic matters. The Democrats were never able to reconcile this disconnection from their original purpose and by this time the Greens had arisen as the "real" left wing alternative to Labor.

And here lies the nub of it. The Greens have a definitive view of the world that is fundamentally different to the mainstream parties. They may have originated as essentially an environmental movement, but the Party has grown into the expression of a complete view of society.

The Greens are based on the primacy of a sustainable environment over economic growth, and government "protection" of people from the market rather than the mostly unfettered rule of the market, supported by the rest of politics.

Unlike the Democrats, who were started from the top down by a high profile political refugee from one of the main parties, the Greens have grown organically out of the environmental movement over many decades – they have deep and extensive roots.

Many of the people who have voted for the Greens recently may have done so out of a Democrats-style protest about the main parties. However, there are many who believe strongly in the Greens view of the world, who previously may have felt philosophically pushed out of the left of the Labor party or have in the past avoided mainstream politics altogether.

So what's the point of this potted history? The point is that the Greens aren't going away any time soon, no matter what the "experts" say. But it also means that Bob Brown's stated aim of becoming one of the main parties (which could only be done by overtaking the Labor Party) is possible, but extremely unlikely, and has a lot more to do with how the Labor Party handles its own existential issues.


What will stop the Greens from becoming a major party – say regularly receiving more than 25-30% of the popular vote – is exactly the same thing that will stop them from going the way of the Democrats. They have a clear and persistently stated ideology, and it's an ideology with which the significant majority of Australians are not comfortable.

But that may not stop the slow and steady increase of the Greens vote to around 15-20%. This is somewhat due to the highly combative nature of the current Coalition under Tony Abbott and the continuing inability of the ALP to work out who they are actually trying to represent as an economically free market. Apart from industrial relations, Labor has nothing to define themselves from the conservatives, and nature abhors a vacuum.

The ridiculously angry debate on a carbon price shows just how difficult the future could be for the ALP. While they may be doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of developing and enacting a policy that will have a reasonable outcome, the Greens will still claim it as their victory, while opponents will blame the ALP.

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Patrick Baume is a Media Analyst who blogs on politics and sport at

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